Among other things, late spring is the season for two important kinds of events: graduations and weddings. On the Jewish calendar, the days following Lag b’Omer (the 33rd day of the period between Passover and Shavuot) are a time for weddings, as up until then weddings are prohibited during the Omer period. This coincides nicely with the secular calendar which, due to the lovely weather (at least theoretically) makes the months of May and June ideal times to wed. And these seasons, of course, also mark graduation ceremonies at high schools and universities, a reminder that education is still, however tenuously, linked with the agricultural realities of the living planet (the academic calendar was originally set up to enable students to go home and work on the farm over the summer).
Two graduation speeches were revised and published as op-eds in the New York Times this week. On Sunday, Jonathan Franzen eloquently wrote of the ways in which our cultural fascination with technology may be eroding our capacity for the messiness of love. Our iphones and Blackberries do what we want, when we want it, without talking back–and they powerfully create a world for us. But when the question of real relationship is thrust upon us, “suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?”
On Tuesday David Brooks published part of the commencement speech he gave at Brandeis, which he entitled “It’s Not About You.” “College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities,” Brooks wrote. “But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.
“Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” Brooks summed up. “They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
The link between our relationships, commitments, identities and the larger health of society is one of the animating dimensions of Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 – 7:89). As the children of Israel focus on communal preparations, the Torah pauses to elaborate the laws of two cases that seem, on the surface, to be about private concerns: the Nazir and the Sotah. The Nazir withdraws from society for a defined period of time by abstaining from wine, letting his hair grow, and avoiding any contact with the dead. The effort is, in its noblest understanding, directed towards holiness–the Nazir makes himself into something like a priest. But, like the priest, the price of that attempt is separation from society.
The Sotah case is born of the distrust of a husband for his wife. If the husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful, he can bring her up for interrogation by means of the mysterious Sotah waters, which will determine whether or not she has cheated. In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah the Prince observes that these two sections are juxtaposed in the Torah to teach that one who sees the Sotah ritual should, or would, want to abstain from wine and become a Nazir: the experience is one of sadness and mourning, which leads us to want to withdraw from society. Our faith in people is challenged.
The Talmud is, I believe, on to something similar to the points of Franzen and Brooks. Our ability to live in relationship, with all the trust and tolerance for ambiguity it requires, is the basic building block of our larger communities and societies. This finds expression in the culmination of Parshat Naso, the parade of princes who bring their gifts to inaugurate the Tabernacle: a moment of communal contribution and celebration (something like a university commencement, perhaps). The health of a society begins and ends in the health of its individual members and the micro-communities that constitute it, and the health of those communities is rooted in and reinforces the health of the individuals within them.